The Arts Empowerment Project Paints new possibilities for court-involved youth.
Can art change the direction of a child’s life?
Natalie Frazier Allen believes so, and she’s harnessed the support of several area youth advocates by founding The Arts Empowerment Project (TAEP), a nonprofit connecting children impacted by violence and abuse to community art programs.
The project connects area kids in the court system with existing or custom-developed programs in visual, performing, and even culinary arts. The goal: Connect children with pro-social activities designed to develop self esteem, encourage teaming and collaboration with others, and provide exposure to healthy outlets for expression and creativity.
Allen, 50, formed the nonprofit after serving as a Guardian Ad Litem in Mecklenburg County’s 26th Judicial Court. That means she was a judge-appointed volunteer advocate for abused or neglected children and part of a team representing children’s best interests in court proceedings.
Helping kids in troubled situations is nothing new for Allen, a lawyer formerly with the District of Columbia’s City Attorney’s Office. There she worked with domestic violence victims, children in the juvenile justice system, and also served as policy counsel in the office’s family division.
Breaking the Cycle of Violence
“I came to learn the cycle of violence, abuse, and neglect women and their children experienced,” says Allen. “It planted a seed for me in terms of thinking, ‘How do you break this cycle—is there a way to impact this?’” She points out that while there were social service programs and couseling for offenders, there were very few for children.
“This never left me and after I moved to Charlotte, I created TAEP as an extension of my Guardian Ad Litem work,” says Allen, who is an arts enthusiast, painter, and musician. “I wanted kids to come out of their norms and experience art and light, something they are not used to seeing, and gain exposure to different visions of what’s possible for them.”
She found a powerful ally in District Court Judge Louis Trosch, who shares Allen’s enthusiasm for getting children involved in arts as a component in breaking the cycle of violence, neglect, and abuse. Trosch’s court, through a partnership with the project, provides in-kind space to help match children with programming and also displays artwork created by the children.
The Arts Empowerment Project worked with the court in identifying kids for a pilot “Culinary Boot Camp” launched in 2014. Nine kids, all in foster care, experienced the five-week course and learned about healthy eating, making positive food choices, and gaining confidence that transcended the kitchen.
“I am a big believer in the transformative power of art,” says Trosch. “There are many children in our community who are not connected to piano lessons, ballet, painting classes, or other creative pursuits many take for granted. Children finding their passion and connecting to it are less likely to become involved in anti-social behavior.”
Last year, Allen looked to Charlotte’s Community School of the Arts to create programming for a pilot arts education program. A special “Encounter” program tailored specifically for TAEP-identified foster children found them working on a unique self portrait project as one program element.
“We asked the kids to sketch how they saw themselves, how they thought others saw them, and how they’d like to be seen,” says Devlin McNeil, president and executive director of the Community School of the Arts. “It was very introspective and led to very positive discussion. We believe fundamentally that participation in the arts strengthens and shapes individuals and communities. We’re thrilled to be working with Natalie and TAEP and helping demonstrate just that.”